Yedida Kanfer, 2016 Twersky Award Winner
Yedida Kanfer serves as the Coordinator of Education Services at the JFCS Holocaust Center, where she teaches high school students, educators, and the larger community about the Holocaust and patterns of genocide. She also manages the Tauber Holocaust Library. Prior to her position at the JFCS Holocaust Center, Yedida served as a research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and worked for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC. Yedida received her PhD in East European and Jewish history from Yale University in 2011; she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship (Russia) and a Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture Doctoral Fellowship. Having studied Russian, Polish, Hebrew, and German languages for research purposes, her favorite language is Yiddish, which she reads and speaks fluently.
In her winning lesson, “A Shelter to Call Home: Dreaming of a Better Future,” students investigate the concept of “home” by reading the story of Rywka Lipszyc, a young diarist in the Lodz ghetto. Through analysis of this newly-discovered text as well as in-person meetings with survivors, students gain greater understanding of Holocaust history in relation to concepts such as ghetto, religious life, and resistance; compare and contrast the identities and roles of women historically and today; develop skills in historical analysis via examination of Holocaust primary sources; and think critically about their own world through studying a period of historical injustice.
“A Shelter to Call Home”: Dreaming of a Better Future
By exploring the diary of Rywka Lipszyc, a young woman in the Lodz ghetto, students will gain an understanding of the main concepts in Holocaust history, and will consider the identities and roles of women historically and today. This lesson is based on material taught to students of the Next Chapter program at the JFCS Holocaust Center.
Part 1: Rywka’s Diary
- Discuss with students: “What does ‘home’ mean to you?” (10-15 minutes)
- Responses can be displayed on whiteboard: Safety/comfort; Family; Language and Culture; Self
- Ask what ‘home’ means for those who have lived in multiple places
- Explain: historically, the “home” was associated with gendered roles. In the European Jewish context, the woman was often tasked with supporting the family economically as well as with the burden of ensuring Jewish continuity
- Explain: The first step in the Holocaust, as in other genocides, was the removal of Jews from their homes, a process sometimes called “ethnic cleansing.” We will take a close look today at how one young woman coped with the process of losing her former home.
- Students read Document Study (background material and Rywka diary excerpts), followed by discussion (35 minutes or more)
- Rywka diary excerpts most effective when read aloud, either in groups or as a whole class
- Discuss questions included on handout. Ask students to point to passages in the text to support their responses.
- Explain: ‘Resistance’ does not always involve taking up arms. Resistance can be “spiritual” in nature: asserting dignity of spirit and self in the face of dehumanization.
- Discuss: Are there people in the world today who do not have a home? What does it mean to be a “refugee”?
- Personal Reflection: Have you ever felt as if you did not have a home? (Either in the physical sense or in the larger emotional sense)
- Discuss: What can we do to make others feel “at home”?
- Assignment Option 1 (if not continuing to Lessons part II and III): Write a letter to Rywka, responding to her diary entries. Introduce yourself. Tell her what your own idea of “home” is. You may portray this artistically, if you wish. Tell Rywka how her diary entries made you feel. Tell her what you are taking away with you, after reading her diary.
- Assignment Option 2 (continue on to Lessons part II and III): Arrange to meet with a Holocaust survivor in your community.
- Holocaust survivor: Someone targeted by the Nazis for persecution who was able to escape by any means
- Any meetings with Holocaust survivors should be scheduled for a date after the next class meeting, to allow for an introduction to interviewing
- Assignment Option 3 (continue on to Personal Project and Lesson Part III): Watch an oral history online given by a Holocaust survivor.
Part 2: Holocaust Stories
- Discuss with students: What is a “story”? (10-15 minutes)
- Ask students to share the stories of their names.
- Ask: What is the “story” of a Holocaust survivor?
- Explain: A Holocaust survivor’s story includes a) their childhood, b) the war years, and c) their life following the war. Our goal is to get to know the individual. How was he/she affected by the Holocaust?
- Discuss (5 minutes): Who has had experience volunteering with seniors? What have you learned from your experience? Describe your interactions with your grandparents. How is interacting with grandparents different from interacting with your peers?
- Distribute and review Handout: Interview Checklist.
- Conducting oral histories (20 min or more)
- Distribute pen and paper. Have students in small groups brainstorm questions to ask Holocaust survivors.
- Review questions as a class. Discuss the difference between yes-and-no and open-ended questions.
- Example of open-ended question: What kind of music did you enjoy as a child?
- Explain: For many years, the predominant voices in Holocaust narratives were those of men (Anne Frank’s diary, heavily edited, being the primary exception)
- Assist students in brainstorming questions that allow both men and women to reflect on their roles in family/society and on changing perceptions of those roles
- For further background on conducting oral histories, consult JWA guide In Our Own Voices
- Do a mock interview with students and play the role of the survivor. Give them the opportunity to ask you questions. You may wish to honor the memory of a survivor you know of by telling his/her story. (10 min)
- Assignment: Personal project. After meeting with your survivor, or hearing their oral testimony, record your reactions to their story in a personal way. You may write an essay, diary entry, or blog post; convey your impressions artistically (painting, dance, photography; film); create a podcast or record a conversation you have with a family member. How did your survivor’s story make you feel? What was it like to meet a survivor (whether virtually or in person)? Which aspects of their story did you connect to, and what do you want to pass on? You may also respond directly to the story of Rywka Lipszyc, or integrate it into your project.
- Discuss confidentiality with your students: unless the survivor prefers otherwise, only his/her first name should be used
Part 3: Bearing Witness
- Divide students into pairs, have them share with each other their survivors’ stories (10-15 min)
- Discuss with students the highs and lows of their experience meeting their survivors (5-10 min)
- Discuss: What did ‘home’ mean for your survivor? What does it mean now? Has meeting your survivor changed the way you think about “home”?
- Encourage other students to comment on which aspects of the project (or the survivor’s story) they relate to.
The Lodz Ghetto and Rywka Lipszyc
The Lodz Ghetto and Rywka Lipszyc
Soon after the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, they began to establish ghettos: areas of towns and cities for exclusively Jewish residence. Ghettos took many forms, but they all functioned to restrict Jewish movement and physically separate Jews from the rest of the population. Ghettos were usually constructed in a disadvantaged area, marked by crowding, poverty, and poor sanitation. A Jewish Council (or Judenrat) was often appointed in ghettos, a set of community leaders subject directly to the Nazi administration. By 1942, many ghettos served as a tool in implementing the Nazis’ Final Solution (extermination of the Jews). They weakened Jews physically—through starvation and illness—spiritually, and mentally.
One of the first ghettos to be established in Poland was the Lodz ghetto, in February 1940.
The Jews of Lodz (about 200,000 persons) packed up their belongings on their backs or by wagon and crowded into the slums in the northern part of the city, often 7 people or more to a small room. The crowding worsened in late 1941 and 1942, when the Nazis deported tens of thousands of Jews from Central Europe to Lodz.
The Lodz ghetto was the longest-lasting ghetto in Poland. Lodz was an industrial city, and the Nazis needed the textiles (fabrics) that it produced. Yet Lodz Jews received rations that could not possibly sustain them. Coal and other sources of heat were scarce in the winter. 20% of ghetto inhabitants died of illness or starvation.
One of the inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto was a young woman named Rywka Lipszyc. Born in Lodz in 1929, Rywka had moved to the ghetto in 1940 together with her parents and her three younger siblings. Her father soon died of a beating at the hands of the Germans; her mother, like many other ghetto inhabitants, succumbed to illness and starvation in 1942. Two of Rywka’s younger siblings were deported from the ghetto to a death camp in September 1942. Rywka and her remaining sister, Cipka, were sent to live with three older cousins, all girls. Rywka was 14 years old. During the day, she worked in a small sewing factory. When she had a spare minute, she wrote in her diary.
Rywka was not unusual in writing a diary: Jewish young men and women across Europe chronicled the experience of being targeted solely because they belonged to the Jewish “race.” As the Nazis purposefully sought to destroy communal and family structures, both young men and women were forced to adopt new roles and faced challenging living environments. They both struggled with the universal questions of adolescence: who am I, and where do I fit in? Yet in ghettos specifically, men often fell prey first to starvation; they were more often the targets of Nazi violence and more often subjected to hard labor. In their absence, women assumed additional economic and, in certain cases, religious roles.
Before the war, religious families such as Rywka’s were just beginning to consider expanded roles for women. Rywka attended a Beys Yakov school, which encouraged women to engage in religious study—a subject previously limited only to boys. In the ghetto, Rywka continued to attend her religious study circles. Yet at home, she struggled with her new roles and with the disintegration of her family. The novelist and critic Virginia Woolf, who famously advocated that women have “a room of their own,” had not yet been translated in Poland. But in Rywka’s traumatic circumstances, she too, like her British counterpart, yearned for her own “shelter to call home.”
Excerpt from Rywka Lipszyc’s diary, Friday February 11, 1944
[…] Oh, it’s Friday again! Time goes by so fast! And for what? Do we know? What’s waiting for us in the future? I’m asking this question with both fear and youthful curiosity. We have an answer to this, great answer: God and the Torah! Father God and Mother Torah! They are our parents! Omnipotent, Omniscient, Eternal!!! It’s so powerful!!! In front of this I’m just a little creature that can hardly be seen through the microscope. Well … oh, I’m laughing at the entire world—I, a poor Jewish girl from the ghetto—I, who don’t know what will happen to me tomorrow … I’m laughing at the entire world because I have a support, a great support: my Faith, because I believe! Thanks to it I’m stronger, richer and more worthy than others … God, I’m so grateful to you!!! …
Excerpt from Rywka Lipszyc’s diary, Tuesday February 25, 1944
[Context: Rywka has just had a fight with her older cousin, who threatens to throw Rywka out of the house]
She keeps saying that she is pleased with me, but now? Right now, would she say that she doesn’t want me anymore? It seems so unbelievable. Oh, is this the right time to think about it? Not only are the times horrible and tragic, but I don’t even have a shelter called “home.” I recall a sentence from A Light in the Darkness, “Even the most modest place, but your own.” Oh, it is so true! That’s why I am so cold!...I feel like crying! Cry, scream from this vast pain surrounding me! Oh, God! Things feel so constricted here! So stuffy!
Excerpt from Rywka Lipszyc’s diary, Monday February 28, 1944
A few years ago, in my dreams, when I was imagining my future, I could see sometimes: an evening, a studio, a desk, there is a woman sitting at the desk (an older woman), she’s writing…and writing, and writing…all the time…she forgets about her surroundings, she’s writing. I can see myself as this woman. Another time I could see a modest apartment which I share with my sister—earlier I thought it was Tamarcia [Rywka’s sister who was deported], but today it’s more probable that it’s Cipka. Some other time I can see: an evening, a modest room with lights, all my family sitting at the table. It’s so nice…so warm, cozy…Oh, it’s so good! Later, when they all go to bed, I sit at the sewing machine and I’m sewing…sewing…it’s so sweet, so good…so delightful! Because everything I make with my own hands is our livelihood. It pays for bread, education, clothes…almost everything.
Like other inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto, Rywka was sent to Auschwitz in August 1944. She survived a death march to Bergen Belsen, was liberated there by the British army, and was sent to a hospital in Germany. This is the last record we have of her. Yet the diary that Rywka Lipszyc kept over the years 1943-4 was found at Auschwitz by the liberating Red Army and was amazingly preserved for 70 years. It was recently published by the JFCS Holocaust Center.
- What were some of the challenges of life in the ghetto for Rywka?
- What role did religion play for Rywka in the ghetto?
- Why do you think Rywka refers to God as her “Father” and the Torah as her “Mother”?
- What do you think being a woman meant for Rywka?
- What things or thoughts brought Rywka a sense of inner stability and comfort? What did she think of as “home”?
Interview Checklist I
Interview Checklist I
Interview Checklist II
Interview Checklist II
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Yedida Kanfer, 2016 Twersky Award Winner." (Viewed on June 23, 2017) <https://jwa.org/twersky/kanfer-yedida>.